Many international exhibitions helped promote Art Deco, but none was more important than the Paris Exhibition of 1925. Officially entitled the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, it was dedicated to the display of modern decorative arts. The exhibition brought together thousands of designs from all over Europe and beyond. With over 16 million visitors, it marked the high point of the first phase of Art Deco.
The exhibition was shaped by France's ambitions in the years immediately after World War I (1914–18). Its aim was to establish the pre-eminence of French taste and luxury goods. French displays dominated the exhibition and Paris itself was put on show as the most fashionable of cities.
The pavilions of major manufacturers, department stores and designers, together with avenues of boutiques, enticed visitors to the fairground by day. By night, its monumental gates, bridges and fountains, as well as major landmarks in the surrounding city, were a blaze of light. The Eiffel Tower bore the Citroën logo. A triumph of 19th-century engineering, the tower was transformed into a giant advertisement for 20th-century consumerism.
The exhibition regulations stressed the need for 'modern' inspiration. There were many novel designs, but designers and manufacturers were reluctant to abandon tradition altogether. Nevertheless, whether the exhibits were 'modernised traditional' or 'modernistic' in character, they helped establish the themes and formal
repertoire of Art Deco. The exhibition had an immediate
and worldwide impact.
The Hôtel d'un Collectionneur
The Hôtel d'un Collectionneur was the most ambitious project by an individual designer and the most acclaimed display in the exhibition. It housed a suite of elegant rooms conceived by the leading French furniture maker (ébéniste) Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. Pierre Patout designed the pavilion, with a vast oval room, the Grand Salon, as its focal point. Ruhlmann brought together many leading artists and designers to decorate the Salon, including Jean Dunand, Jean Dupas, Antoine Bourdelle and Edgar Brandt.
Its sumptuous decoration, rich use of colour and elegant modernisation of traditional forms and techniques have led many critics to consider the Grand Salon the greatest achievement of French Art Deco. Several works from the interior, notably the 'Donkey and Hedgehog' cabinet and Jean Dupas' painting Les Perruches, have become Art Deco icons.
Boutiques and department stores at the 1925 exhibition
The exhibition aimed to establish Paris as the world centre for shopping. On the Pont Alexandre III and in the Galerie des Boutiques, exclusive shops promoted luxury goods with carefully orchestrated window displays. These introduced a new generation of fashion mannequins. The most innovative were the work of Siégel and Pierre Imans, who were inspired by the Cubist and abstract forms of avant-garde art. They also experimented with radical new surface finishes, such as mirror and glistening black wax.
The novel presentation of fashion was visible in both the official Pavilion de l'Elégance and the displays organized by individual designers such as Paul Poiret and Sonia Delaunay. In the eye-catching pavilions of the leading department stores, chic modern furnishings were available at affordable prices.
International Displays at 1925
Many European countries participated in the Paris Exhibition, including Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and the USSR. Other parts of the world were less well represented, and Germany and the USA were notable absentees.
Germany, as the main aggressor in the First World War and the greatest threat to French supremacy in the decorative arts, was sent an invitation too late to organize a major display. The USA declined to participate on the grounds that 'there was no modern design in America'.
Although the exhibition regulations insisted on the need for displays of 'modern' inspiration, this rule was not always observed. In both the French and international displays, there was an uneasy tension between those designs that derived from tradition and those without
historical precedent. The decorative innovation that did exist in the exhibition was sometimes shortlived. In many European countries, it later gave way to either a return to tradition or a move towards more functionalist Modernism.
Neo-classicism and Biedermeier were the most pervasive influences on Scandinavian Art Deco. Both could easily be simplified to meet modern tastes. The Swedish and Danish displays at the 1925 Paris Exhibition revealed a clear debt to these styles.
The Swedish pavilion, designed by Carl Bergstein, took the form of a neo-Greek temple with attenuated Ionic columns, decorated with relief sculpture by Ivar Johnsson. Neo-Greek furniture designed by Erik Gunnar Asplund complemented the architecture. A historic high style also inspired Simon Gate's Rococo 'Paris' cup, made by the Orrefors glassworks. This work was the centrepiece of the pavilion and displayed in isolated splendour.
In the Grand Palais, the Swedish displays showed a more progressive approach. Edward Hald's delicately drawn scenes depicted contemporary city life and often incorporated exotic motifs. They represented a modernization of the engraved glass tradition and helped win Orrefors a gold medal.
The Netherlands' selection committee sought to represent a broad range of tendencies. It invited younger designers, influenced by the radical ideas of the German Werkbund and the Dutch De Stijl group, to exhibit alongside older artists working in a variety of styles.However, it was the work of the Amsterdam School that dominated the Dutch displays.
Designed by J. F. Staal, the pavilion was typical of Amsterdam School aesthetics. Made of brick, it combined expressive decoration with exotic forms and motifs. Here and elsewhere, exhibits by the sculptors Hildo Krop and John Rädecker and the designers Michel De Klerk and C.A. Lion Cachet brought the work of the Amsterdam School to an international audience.Throughout the Dutch displays were reminders of the country's colonial heritage. Many works employed exotic imagery, materials or techniques as designers looked to the East for inspiration, particularly to the art and design of Indonesia.
Like many of the international displays, the Italian pavilion combined overtly modernistic work with exhibits that drew on tradition. The monumental Renaissance-style national pavilion, designed by Armando Brasini, paid no heed to the 'modern' requirements of the exhibition regulations. But the work of other designers more successfully met the criteria. Gio Ponti, who won a Grand Prix for his porcelain designs, infused the logic of classicism with elegance, fantasy and wit.
Elsewhere in the exhibition the brightly coloured, seductive and sometimes provocative graphics, textiles and furnishings of the Futurists - including Giacomo Balla, Fortunato Depero and Enrico Prampolini - gave a completely different dimension to the Italian displays. According to one critic, 'The Futurists saved Italy in Paris'.
Historic styles, folk art and the work of the avant garde inspired the Czechoslovak displays. The modernistic pavilion, designed by Josef Gočár, took the symbolic and abstracted form of a ship. Its main reception room self-consciously combined forms derived from the Renaissance with those of Czech Cubism.
In other displays in the exhibition competing tendencies were also in evidence. The Czechoslovak sculptor Jaroslav Horejc designed a set of four glass goblets for the Viennese firm of J. & L. Lobmeyr. Executed in intaglio engraving, they were decorated with the muscular and elongated figures typical of much Art Deco figuration. Conversely, in his photographs of female nudes, František Drtikol used geometric and abstract forms with a radical simplification of composition. His work reflects tendencies that would increasingly characterize Art Deco by the late 1920s.
Following the hugely successful British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in 1924, many leading British designers and manufacturers did not feel the need to exhibit in Paris in 1925. Many of those who did participate were reluctant to break with the past and, overall, the British contribution was deeply conservative.One critic complained of the 'dullness and aloofness, and the absence of the spirit of adventure in many of the British displays'.
Yet, this was not the whole story. Several textile companies, including Warner & Sons, used new machine techniques but employed traditional styles. Others, such as Grafton & Co. and William Foxton Ltd, produced bright new textiles in modern designs. And some of the ceramics displays, such as those of Carter, Stabler & Adams of Poole, were admired for their lively colour and bold modelling.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Art Deco: 1910-1939', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 27 March - 20 July 2003.